“Soapy Sanderson” starts the Northern Exposure trend of the town coming together over a common event or person, in this instance, Soapy Sanderson (John McLiam). Soapy is a retired Kenyon College professor that moved to Alaska after the death of his wife. Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner) visits Soapy, helps him with his outdoor chores and care of his team of huskies, and takes him by air taxi to his medical appointment. This is the beginning of Northern Exposure showing friendships among people of disparate ages and backgrounds, a warm and sincere pattern that recurs throughout the show.
The framing narrative of interviewing the characters is somewhat at odds in tone with the building narrative of Soapy’s life and what to do with his land, but it does give a sense of each character through what story he or she tells. Shelley (Cynthia Geary) confesses, “Soapy did not believe in artificial sweeteners.” Maggie learns from the film crew that Soapy saw a lot of his wife’s character in Maggie and that he wrote in his diary that “they both sang their own song.” Holling says that Soapy raced his huskies in the Iditarod. When asked, “Did he see it as a metaphor for the hero’s journey into the wilderness to face himself?” (Soapy held doctorates in religion and in mythology, so the Campbellian question might suit his academic side), Holling replies, “Um…He thought it was fun!” Maurice lambasts the notion that Alaska is “a state of mind,” listing present and future amenities for well-heeled travelers in his vision of Alaska’s future: “People don’t want rugged. People want clean towels.”
Joel may be the viewpoint character of the show, but Holling’s view of Alaska most often comes closes to the spirit Northern Exposure; it rarely subscribes to the view of the filmmakers—Alaska as an exotic idyll—or Maurice’s view of developing the tundra, but rather Holling’s “He thought it was fun!” The episode is somewhat haphazardly executed. Some scenes seem disjointed. For example, Maggie suggests turning Soapy’s land into a nature preserve before Joel suggests returning the land to the Indians. Then, Maggie and Joel return to talking about a nature preserve. These conversations seem oddly out of order.
Maggie changes her mind about Joel’s nature rather quickly and dramatically when he suggests giving the land back to the Indians. She’s critical and defensive, then conciliatory and smitten. Given the almost-incessant fighting between them, her change of heart is jarring. As a result, some of Maggie and Joel’s scenes feel manufactured, without enough development to get to the character moments naturally. Maggie is a character whose strong emotions change quickly, but her passion comes across as volatility much of the time because she as a character is just beginning to develop her own story. The Joel and Maggie relationship is a potent part of the series, but it is brought to the fore too early in this episode; it’s too much too soon.
Northern Exposure becomes a wonderfully musical show over the course of its run, but these early episodes seem amateurish in mixing music into the flow of the episodes. It queues the theme song in the first two episodes to fill an interlude that has no dialogue, and in this episode, fills numerous moments of contemplation with the piano score that becomes a theme for Maggie’s life and self-realization. The score is used to better effect later, but here, it becomes ponderous. The episode ends with Joel and Ed reflecting on their experiences, each half-listening to the other’s rambling conversation. The scene itself rambles out, as though the writers don’t know how to end it. The bane of rewatching a great series is knowing the sublime moments that await. Northern Exposure has many such endings, so judging an early effort by what is yet in the future isn’t entirely fair.
The primary underlying narrative is still Joel’s. Having Joel as the contrast allows the other characters to seem unique without making their uniquenesses into overt oddities. For example, the college filmmakers have no point of perspective or reference; all of their question and suppositions are uninformed by any sort of reality. Because of this, Holling, Shelley, et al come off as more extreme versions of their real selves. This kind of investigative irony—emphatic insistence on showing the “truth” conversely revealing exaggeration— might have served the show better later on, after the characters had developed and become more familiar to viewers. Nevertheless the interview story framing the episode gives characters extension beyond their part in the plot of Joel coming into town and adjusting to his new life. The audience starts to imagine that the town of Cicely really is populated by people that have, like Soapy, moved there to live their fuller and truer lives.
And then there is Ed. Ed, who quotes movies to offer wisdom, recognizes classic film references, and has a chance to participate behind the camera in the documentary imagines that he could become “the Bergman of the North.” The episodes ends quietly with Ed and Joel individually musing over preceding events. Joel still imagines that these events haven’t marked him, that he will go back to New York to fulfill the life he seems to think is temporarily on hold. Ed, however, is changed, not so much by the death of Soapy, but by the telling of the story of Soapy’s life by the film students. Ed is imagining a life in which he becomes his true self, but in Ed’s case, that life comes in primarily from outside Alaska.
The encompassing idea of the episode, and really the idea that encompasses the series, is conventional life vs. wild life and finding the place that suits your identify and the identity that suits your place. Joel talks often about his intended future life with Elaine, listing the standard experiences he expects to have: marriage, three kids in private school, a condo in Manhattan, working in his prestigious medical practice, impressing fellow doctors with his knowledge of wines he doesn’t drink. It’s all very programmatic. Maggie came to Alaska with a boyfriend that died and now has another rugged boyfriend that is a facsimile of those that have come before. Like Joel, she is authentic in her chosen profession, but she’s only slightly further along than Joel in finding her right life.
Soapy, in contrast, genuinely adored his wife and had a 20 year career as a professor of theology and mythology. Yet, when his wife died, he moved to Alaska and loved every minute of it. Soapy must have recognized an emerging honesty of identity between Joel and Maggie. Many of their arguments and conversations throughout the episode have to do with them reworking their expectations of one another. Soapy, for the little time the audience sees him, must have recognized a vein of personal truth in their interactions and, in making them partners in inheriting his land, honored his wife and gave himself a wise laugh as a farewell to himself.
Chris Stevens (John Corbett) tells Joel that what matters is what you do while you’re in a place, for whatever time you’re there. “Soapy Sanderson” begins to stretch the thread of the lives the characters have left behind to come to Alaska and how they reinvent themselves in their new place, foreshadowing early in the series the question of whether Joel really does want to be a doctor in New York City.
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